How Canadian Elections Perpetuate Islamphobia Amid Niqab Controversy

Here in Canada, we are home to the Maple leaf. When fall comes around, this prominent leaf starts to gradually change its colors. It goes from its natural colors to a bright yellow, to a warm orange and then to a fierce red. It’s almost as if all the trees are on fire. It takes our breath away and it is at this point that we Canadians feel incapable of looking at anything else but at the trees who stare right back at us, demanding our undivided attention and admiration.

Fall came a little early this year. While nature transformed and revealed its true colors rapidly, so did the conservative Canadian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Whereas previously the average Canadian didn’t worry too much about what was going on in Ottawa, Harper’s words and policies, like the red maple leaves of this season, grabbed everyone’s attention — especially the visible minorities of Canada. Most of us realized that we were in for a big winter storm.

Prime Minister Harper doesn’t seem to understand the concept of freedom of choice, freedom of religion or freedom of expression.

On Saturday evening, my family and I were dining at a restaurant in the greater Toronto area when an apparently white-looking man came up to our table and said “I’m sorry.”

My cousin’s first thought was that this man had crashed our car in the parking lot and now he was apologizing — but to our surprise, he said, “I’m sorry about the way our government is treating people like her,” as he pointed to my mother.

My face immediately lit up. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You see, my mother is a niqabi. She covers her face with a veil when in public and around men who are not her mahram (In Islam, a woman’s husband and any un-marriageable kin, including her father, grandfather, brother, son, uncle, nephew and father-in-law are her mahrams).

“The government shouldn’t be able to tell anyone what to wear and what not to wear. What, are they going to tell me to take off this jacket I’m wearing just because they don’t like it? No,” he concluded.

Before discussing the prime minister’s controversial stance on the niqab, it is important to note that veiling of the face has been a topic of debate in the Muslim community too. Some scholars claim that the niqab is a religious obligation, while others counter that the niqab is not mandatory,
but is available as an extra step for women who want to wear it. Their arguments are based on differing interpretations of Quranic verses and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

Nonetheless, both schools of thought agree that it is solely a woman’s choice if she wants to cover her face or not, as according to Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Quran: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

What better way to win votes than to politicize the wearing of the niqab and encourage islamophobia among a people who are already scared by the media’s irresponsible reporting on Islam?

Prime Minister Harper, however, doesn’t seem to understand the concept of freedom of choice, freedom of religion or freedom of expression (I could go on forever). According to him, the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-woman.”  

He thinks that by opposing the niqab, he is liberating Muslim women. I would argue that nothing is more liberating than living in a country that gives you the freedom to do whatever you want with your face, your hair, your body and everything else because it’s yours. Harper and his gang are the force of oppression here.

In 2011, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism (ironic, I know) announced that individuals must expose their face at citizenship ceremonies. By June of 2015, the Harper government had introduced the Oath of Citizenship Act, which banned the wearing of the niqab while take the oath of citizenship.

A Muslim woman, Zunera Ishaq, challenged this law because she claimed that it violated the rights given to her in the Citizenship Act, which guarantees maximum amount of religious freedom during citizenship ceremonies. The case went to court and obviously, Ishaq won. This ruling came out last month — a little more than 30 days away from the Federal Elections that will take place today, on Oct. 19.


Zunera Ishaq took her oath of citizenship with her niqab on Oct. 9, 2015.

Psychologists agree that fear is one of our most powerful motivators. It makes us uncomfortable and triggers our instinctual defensive system. Harper and his government are, of course, aware of this reality.

What better way to win votes than to politicize the wearing of the niqab and encourage islamophobia among a people who are already scared by the media’s irresponsible reporting on Islam and groups like ISIS?

Well, it turns out that fear-mongering works. Like the colorful fall leaves that become the focal point of everyone’s attention, the niqab controversy turned everyone’s heads in the same direction. The topic spread like wildfire all across the country in a matter of days.

While most people remained civil and debated the issue in respectful ways, a few Canadians chose to react violently. We witnessed an overt rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the past month. On Oct. 1, 2015, a pregnant Muslim woman wearing the hijab(only head-covering) was physically attacked in the province of Québec. On Oct. 4, Safira Merriman, a Muslim convert who wears the niqab was also physically attacked in Toronto. On Oct. 7, a Muslim woman was verbally abused by an Islamophobic and racist man in the famous Eaton Centre of Toronto. Clearly, there is a pattern here.

I wear the hijab and I have honestly never felt uncomfortable walking with it on my head as I go to the nearest Tim Hortons or as I walk past the CN tower in Toronto — until now. I feel as if all eyes are on me and that perhaps somebody in the crowd of Canadians around me despises the religious symbol of worship on my head. I tell myself that I’m probably wrong. The reason I got treated with disrespect for the first time by a bus driver can’t be my hijab.

Canadians don’t hate — we’re the nicest people around. But then I remind myself that it would be a ridiculous act of naïveté and stupidity for me to believe that Harper’s consistent and inflammatory promotion of hateful and discriminatory legislation is not going to have repercussions. It has indeed incited negative reactions and I predict that it will continue doing so until Election Day. The leaves have turned a threatening red and I don’t expect them to shed off anytime soon.

When Harper addressed the House of Commons on the niqab he said, “We don’t allow people to cover their faces during citizenship ceremonies and why would Canadians, contrary to our own values, embrace a practice at that time that is not transparent, that is not transparent, and frankly is rooted in a culture that is anti-women?”

Well my question is Mr. Harper, when you say you don’t “allow” people to contradict “our values,” are you talking about about your own racist, discriminatory and Islamophobic values or are you talking about Canadian values?

Because as far as I’m concerned, Canadian values were epitomized by the man who came to my family’s table and told us that Canada and Canadians are better than what you’re doing. We are tolerant, supportive and we stand shoulder to shoulder against leaders like you who want to divide us. Frankly, that’s not my Canada.


Written by Khalood Kibria

Image: Google